I was probably four when I first heard about Koschei the Immortal. Every child growing up in a Russian-speaking home knows about him. An archetypal male antagonist of Slavic folklore, he is usually described as an ugly, old man in a very thin body. A skeleton-like figure (Koschei comes from a Russian word that means “bone”), he is in excellent health, despite his age and repulsive looks. More than that, he is sort-of immortal. You see, Koschei cannot be killed by regular means targeting his body. The key to his death is hidden “inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under a green oak tree, which is on the island of Buyan in the ocean.” As long as the needle is safe, he cannot die.
Since I’ve become a father five years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about that character. In a way, I feel I’ve become Koschei myself.
Why did I want to bring a child into this world? If I scratch the surface, I find an egotistical wish to grant myself more life. I’m sure I’m not alone. We make children in a half-conscious effort to extend our lives, make them more durable, make them count for longer. We’ll grow older, our hearts will have to be artificially paced, our minds will become resistant to change, our bodies will wrinkle and wither. But our former youth, agility and playfulness will not disappear into thin air. Rather, they will have transformed into the youthful energy of our grown-up children.
Look at that middle-aged woman hugging her adult daughter. Look at those bags under her eyes, the lines on her forehead, the wrinkles radiating from the corners of her eyes. She is not a young woman anymore. She has aged. Her fate is drawn on her face. Her faded beauty is a harbinger of that which awaits us all. But she isn’t a victim of time. She isn’t trying to hide her age with ever-more-intrusive cosmetic surgery. She wears her age with dignity. She has something to show for it. She has nurtured an entire new person, giving it the warmth of her body, the consolation of her words, the space of her life. It’s certainly not the only way for a woman or a man to make their time on this planet count. Some people will be happier child-free, able to dedicate themselves fully to other pursuits. But for many, children will turn out to be their most meaningful and enduring projects.
After a certain age, with every passing year we get less and less future to orient ourselves towards. Less plans are made, more time is passed recalling memories. But children can grant us more future. A future sustained by two fantasies. A daydream about how their lives will shape up. And a fantasy that a small part of us will go on living with them. Granted, it’s not real. But all future is a fantasy. Is fantasizing about your daughter finishing her PhD, or getting married, or traveling to Nepal really all that different from having the same dreams for yourself?
Parents trying to live their children’s lives – ugh, that’s an ugly picture, right? But it doesn’t have to be. Take away the intrusive moralizing, the guilt trips, the manipulations, the “listen to me” monologues, and you are left with a pretty decent deal. Your daughter gets a life to live and your love to build herself from. And you get to feel you are with her on her journey. Is that so wrong?
Only there is one small catch. One small dent in your immortality edifice. That imaginary endurance comes with a heavy price.
Your child has to live. He must live. He can’t perish in a car crash. She can’t die from a terminal illness. He can’t fall from a tree and break his neck. She can’t drown. Divorce, bankruptcy, war – almost anything can be endured and overcome. Except one thing.
Do you have any idea what you have done? You have irreversibly bet your entire emotional wellbeing on the survival of a frail biological organism, over which you have very little control in a universe that couldn’t care less.
Imagine someone giving you one end of a thin thread, and telling you to hold it tight because your life depends on it. Unwinding it nonchalantly coil after coil, he or she soon disappear into the woods with the remaining yarn. And so you hold on. You hold so hard your fingers hurt. Every waking hour you check to see the thread is not too loose but also not too tight. You connect it to the endings of your nervous system. You open your chest and attach it to the raw, pulsating muscle of your heart. That’s your life from now on.
I’m 38. My mom calls me every day. “I need to hear your voice”, she says. “Just tell me something.”
I don’t have much to tell her, we just spoke last night. I give simple answers, and let her do most of the talking.
“Last time you sounded tense, anxious. Are you happy?”
“Mom, everything is alright.”
“I’m sorry, I know you have to work. How’s Ayan?”
“He’s great. Goes to kindergarten, talks without stop.”
“You know, I hear your voice, and my mood brightens up. It’s my medicine.”
I try to be understanding. Sometimes I get impatient. I snap. I call later to apologize. I know now what those short phone calls mean to her. They are her thread. Three years ago we left Israel and came to Canada. I took the yarn and went off into the woods. It doesn’t matter that I’m an adult with my own family now. That thread is the most important thing to her. I could be living on Mars, and she would be fine with it, as long as we speak regularly. She doesn’t need anything from me, just to know that I’m well, that I am happy. Sure, she is more anxious than most people (Jewish moms often are), but that basic need to know your children are OK is universal.
A recent New York Times article about a fire in Oakland quotes one father whose son died that night. “The only positive thing to come out of Nick’s death for me is that I’m no longer afraid of dying. When I’m dead, I will either be with Nick or no longer grieve for him.”
I’ve been living my life without thinking much about what it means to my parents. That’s the way of the world. But now it’s my turn to find out the terms of the deal. And so I’ve become Koschei the Immortal. I have an egg. And inside that egg there is a needle. And as long as that needle is intact, I get to live.